Dear Savvy Senior: My aunt recently asked me to be the executor of her will when she dies. I’m flattered that she asked, but I’m not sure what exactly the job entails. What can you tell me about this? — Inquiring Niece
Dear Inquiring: Serving as the executor of your aunt’s estate may seem like an honor, but it can also be a lot of work. Here’s what you should know to help you prepare for this job.
As the executor of your aunt’s will, you’re essentially responsible for winding up her affairs after she dies. While this may sound simple enough, you need to be aware that the job can be time-consuming and difficult depending on the complexity of her financial and family situation. Some of the duties required include:
>> Filing court papers to start the probate process (this is generally required by law to determine the will’s validity).
>> Taking an inventory of everything in her estate.
>> Using her estate’s funds to pay bills, including taxes, funeral costs, etc.
>> Handling details like terminating her credit cards and notifying banks and government agencies like Social Security and the post office of her death.
>> Preparing and filing her final income tax returns.
>> Distributing assets to the beneficiaries named in her will.
Be aware that each state has specific laws and timetables on an executor’s responsibilities. Your state or local bar association may have an online law library that details the rules and requirements. The American Bar Association website also offers guidance on how to settle an estate. Go to AmericanBar.org and type in “guidelines for individual executors and trustees” in the search bar to find it.
If you agree to take on the responsibility as executor of your aunt’s estate, your first step is to make sure she has an updated will and find out where all her important documents and financial information are located. Being able to quickly put your hands on deeds, brokerage statements and insurance policies after she dies will save you a lot of time and hassle.
If she has a complex estate, you may want to hire an attorney or tax accountant to guide you through the process, with the estate picking up the cost. If you need help locating a pro, the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils (naepc.org) and the National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (naela.org) are good resources that provide directories on their websites to help you find someone.
Find out if there are any conflicts between the beneficiaries of your aunt’s estate. If there are some potential problems, you can make your job as executor much easier if everyone knows in advance who’s getting what, and why. So, ask your aunt to tell her beneficiaries what they can expect. This includes the personal items too, because wills often leave it up to the executor to dole out heirlooms. If there’s no distribution plan for personal property, suggest she make one and put it in writing.
As the executor, you’re entitled to a fee paid by the estate. In most states, executors are entitled to take a percentage of the estate’s value, which ranges anywhere from 1% to 5% depending on the size of the estate. But, if you’re a beneficiary, it might make sense to forgo the fee. That’s because fees are taxable, but Uncle Sam in most states doesn’t tax inheritances.
For more information on the duties of an executor, get a copy of the book “The Executor’s Guide: Settling A Loved One’s Estate or Trust” at Nolo.com.
Jim Miller is a contributor to NBC-TV’s “Today” program and author of “The Savvy Senior.” Send your questions to Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070; or visit savvysenior.org.